When director David Robert Mitchell appeared on the indie scene in 2010 with “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” few would have guessed that his next project might be a horror movie. And yet, as follow-ups go, “It Follows” makes perfect sense, applying what worked best about that debut — namely, its haunting evocation of adolescent anxiety and yearning, set against the backdrop of an atmospheric Michigan suburb — to a far more commercial genre. Starting off strong before losing its way in the end, this stylish, suspenseful chiller should significantly broaden Mitchell’s audience without disappointing his early supporters in the slightest.
From the opening scene, the pic feels different from typical genre fare: A disoriented young woman stumbles out into the street of an otherwise peaceful tree-lined neighborhood. The camera keeps its distance, slowly rotating as she runs up and down the block, trying to avoid a threat only she can see. The next morning, the girl’s corpse is found down by the lake, twisted beyond recognition.
Something scary is stalking the young people in this WASP-y Detroit suburb — the same environment where Mitchell grew up. If “Myth” was his John Hughes homage, then “It Follows” is the director’s best stab at doing John Carpenter. From the eerie electronic score to the suffocating sense of dread, the resemblance is uncanny: This is the kind of film that, if watched on VHS, might have kept the slumber-party teens wide awake in his last movie. Except that on video, they would have missed out on Mitchell’s expert use of widescreen, in which audiences are constantly looking over the character’s shoulder, scanning the frame to find the “follower.”
As bogeymen go, Mitchell’s monster is both intuitive (like something out of a bad dream) and impossible to comprehend (despite much discussion, no one seems to know how to beat it). The pic’s malevolent shape-shifter can take the form of anyone, from a beloved relative to a complete stranger. Sometimes it’s subtle enough to blend in with crowds. At others, it’s frighteningly conspicuous: a naked old man staring at you from a nearby rooftop, or a cheerleader leaking urine as she lurches across the living-room floor. The only certainty seems to be that it won’t stop until you’re dead. And once you’re dead, it will go after the person who “gave” it to you.
Judging strictly from a filmmaking p.o.v., “It Follows” is remarkably effective for most of its running time, ratcheting up the tension, then stinging the audience periodically with one of those jolts that sends everyone levitating a couple inches above their seats. But the excitement wears off after a point, once the kids realize they don’t really understand what they’re dealing with, resulting in a couple of badly staged setpieces, including a clunky lakeside attack and a virtually nonsensical climactic encounter at a public pool, where a plan that wasn’t clear to begin with goes awry.
Generally speaking, horror is only as potent as whatever fear it exploits, and “It Follows” relies a bit too heavily on a wobbly venereal-disease allegory. Instead of exploiting near-universal adolescent anxieties about virginity, Mitchell creates a situation where the infected are super-motivated to pass it on. All it takes is one ill-advised backseat tryst to turn carefree college-aged beauty Jay (“The Bling Ring’s” Maika Monroe) into a paranoid mess. As it is, the neighborhood kids are constantly spying on her, but after hooking up with the wrong guy (Jake Weary), she starts to notice all sorts of creepy people in her peripheral vision.
As Mitchell explained at the pic’s premiere in Cannes, “It Follows” marks his attempt to make a “beautiful horror movie” — equal parts gentle and aggressive. At times, his meticulous compositions rival Gregory Crewdson’s ethereal suburban-gothic photographs (sometimes staged at roughly the same budget as this admirably inexpensive feature). While “It Follows” isn’t a period piece per se, the incidents take place in a world of abandoned buildings, rusty old American automobiles and outdated landline telephones. Even without a supernatural stalker in the mix, one wants to advise these kids — who include plausible next-door types Olivia Luccardi and Lili Sepe, awkwardly shy Keir Gilchrist and faux-tough Daniel Zovatto — to run away from this dead-end existence as fast and as far as they can.